Protests threaten Georgian leader's grip on power

TBILISI Thu Sep 27, 2012 10:37am EDT

1 of 5. Supporters of the ruling National Movement Party scuffle with supporters of the opposition Georgian Dream coalition during an election rally in the town of Signagi, 115 km (71 miles) southeast of Tbilisi, September 26, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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TBILISI (Reuters) - Nana Dumbadze was all set to vote for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's party in an election next week. That is, until she saw television footage of prisoners being raped.

The 37-year-old teacher was so shocked that she has decided to switch allegiance from the leader of the Rose Revolution that swept out the ex-Soviet old guard in 2003 to an opposition bloc, Georgian Dream, led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.

The prison brutality scandal, which has ignited protests, has left Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) facing an unexpectedly tough battle to keep power in the volatile Caucasus state, a transit route for oil and gas to the West.

It has raised the stakes for Saakashvili. He has promised to leave the presidency next year and needs a UNM victory in the October 1 parliamentary election to keep a hand on Georgia's reins and avoid the risk of political oblivion.

The parliament will have stronger powers after next year's presidential election and Saakashvili could steer an ally into the post of prime minister with enhanced authority or take the job himself, though he is not expected to do that.

"I'd intended to vote for Saakashvili's party but after watching what we've all seen on TV I've changed my mind and will vote for the opposition now," Dumbadze said. "I think it's immoral to vote for this government."

Dumbadze described asking her mother to make sure her two sons, aged seven and 10, do not see the footage on television while she is away at work or on errands.

The scandal has dimmed the image the pro-Western, U.S.-educated Saakashvili cultivated as a reformer who has curbed corruption and ushered in democracy, handing ammunition to foes who say he has actually trampled on rights and freedoms.

The grim footage has enabled Ivanishvili, a once-reclusive tycoon who has a spectacular glass and steel house overlooking Tbilisi, to call the vote "a choice between good and evil".

Saakashvili, 44, became the West's political darling when he rose to power after the bloodless revolution that toppled Eduard Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister.

But opponents have accused Saakashvili of monopolizing power and criticized him for leading Georgia into a disastrous five-day war with Russia in 2008. His promise to take Georgia into NATO remains unfulfilled and has soured relations with Moscow.

The abuse scandal has increased tensions before the vote, prompting calls for restraint from the West.

The opposition says 60 supporters have been detained by police, describing an "atmosphere of fear and intimidation". The ruling party says supporters have been attacked by protesters and urged the six-party Georgian Dream to reject violence.

Saakashvili's government says the video, which shows guards beating, punching and humiliating prisoners, as well as inmates being raped with various objects, was recorded by guards who were bribed by "politically motivated persons".

But Saaskashvili has also promised to clean up the jails. His interior and prisons ministers have resigned. The Tbilisi prison chief, two deputies and several guards have been arrested.

"I think they did quite well in reacting," said Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. Whether it will be enough for Saakashvili's party to hold onto power is less clear.

FADED ROSE?

An opinion poll in August put UNM on 37 percent support against 12 percent for Georgian Dream and showed 43 percent of respondents could vote either way. No polls have appeared since the protests but the opposition is expected to make gains.

"I think that these events will have a huge impact on the election and will overshadow the nihilism, illusions and the government's propaganda," said Shorena Shaverdashvili, editor-in-chief of the independent Liberal magazine.

De Waal said the abuse scandal would "help support the opposition narrative in Georgia that the government has built a facade which hides unpleasant realities and has failed to improve the lives of ordinary people."

"But the opposition is still less well mobilized and hasn't been able to articulate very well what it is offering instead and the electoral system also favors the ruling party, so I still expect the UNM to win more seats on October 1," he added.

Many Georgians just want better living standards.

"I'll vote for anyone whose promises seem the most realistic," said Lali Narmania, 58, who lives in a shabby apartment on Tbilisi's outskirts with her disabled husband and son, existing on a monthly state allowance of 250 lari ($150).

Narmania is unemployed and her husband is bedridden by a wound from the 1992-1993 war in which the Black Sea region of Abkhazia broke from Tbilisi's control.

Georgia's economy, hit by the war and the global financial crisis, has been growing again since 2010. But inflation was 11.2 percent that year and the government expects a rate of 6-7 percent this year after a dip to 2 percent in 2011.

Saakashvili was hailed by the West as a shining example for his promise to clean up the corruption, rigged elections and economic stagnation that blighted Georgia's first decade of independence after the Soviet Union collapsed.

His team restored 24-hour electricity and clamped down on police bribe-taking, and the economy took off before the war and crisis. But critics accuse him of curbing democracy, persecuting opponents, pressuring courts and controlling the media.

The war with Russia put Abkhazia and the rebel region of South Ossetia, both now recognized by Moscow as independent nations, further from Georgia's reach. Russian leaders depict Saakashvili as a hothead itching to take the regions by force.

Saakashvili, for his part, says President Vladimir Putin wants to gain sway over a country that was under Russian or Soviet control for almost two centuries. He has called the abuse scandal "Russian mud" financed with "Russian money".

"Those who thought that they could carry out Putin's orders in our country will be very disappointed," Saakashvili told supporters on Sunday in Zugdidi in western Georgia.

Ivanishvili, who has sold the Russian assets that were a chunk of his estimated $6.4 billion, says Saakashvili is playing the "Russian card" to draw attention away from internal problems. "Saakashvili just wants you to forget about what you've all seen," Ivanishvili told a crowd in Zugdidi.

(Reporting by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Steve Gutterman and Timothy Heritage)

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